Justification and Judgment Day: Part 6, In Praise of Judgment Day

In the next post I want to say something about grace and confidence, but before I do that I want to say something nice about Judgment Day. 

Remember how at the start of this series I said a lot readers would hate it? Perhaps you have. But what, exactly, was the source of my concern?

Specifically, the notion of Judgment Day. You don't hear much about Judgment Day from Christian pulpits, podcasts, or books, especially in moderate to progressive Christian spaces. But a vision of eschatological judgment is found on almost every page of Scripture. Yet we never talk about. Never. Most Christians I know are walking around with a cozy made-up religion, knitted together from inspirational Bible verses. I'm not quite sure what these people believe, but it's not the faith we find in the New Testament.

Even worse, this series has argued that even the justified will face the judgment where they will have their works on earth tested and weighed in the balance. And that notion is hard to fathom, even among conservative and fundamentalist Christians.

This series has followed the argument of a small minority of bible scholars (maybe as few as two!) who have argued that justification is different from judgment. Justification is a necessary but not sufficient condition for judgment. Justification is forgiveness for past sins and rescue from the power of Sin though the gift of the Holy Spirit. This restores human freedom, capacity and response-ability before God. As the justified, we are now called and expected to live a rehabilitated life in partnership with God. Judgment day will assess the fruits of this rehabilitated life. As it says in Revelation 19.8, the bright clothing we are given on Judgment Day is not the imputed righteousness of Christ but "the righteous deeds of the saints." And as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3, the fire of judgment will "test the quality of each person's work" and those who have labored well will "receive a reward."  Of course, given the sustaining grace and power of God in our lives, we have every expectation of success. We boast in Christ alone. We will stand vindicated on that Day because God will make us stand. 

Now, there are some major concerns with this proposal. Most importantly, this vision seems to undermine our confidence in our salvation. Some anxiety creeps in, a bit of "fear and trembling" as we work out our salvation. This anxiety will trigger, I'm expecting, almost everyone. This anxiety is anathema to the Lutheran core at the heart of Western Protestantism, conservative and progressive alike. For example, evangelicals will be loath to consider anything that nullifies grace, the bulletproof protection of imputed righteousness gifted to the elect. We will not be judged by our works but by Christ's own righteousness that I receive by faith! For progressive Christians, committed as they are to God's unconditional care and love, the notion that we'll be judged by God, weighed in the balance and tested by fire on the day of wrath, sounds too much like Jonathan Edward's "sinners in the hands of an angry God." The love of God appears too conditional in such a scenario. And for those, like me, who embrace a vision of universal reconciliation, how's Judgement Day based upon works supposed to fit into such a scheme?

So, to share some thoughts about these questions, if any overly triggered readers have made it this far, I want to say something tomorrow to talk about grace, confidence and hell. If you've made it this far, you deserve some comfort. 

But before turning to those comforting issues, however, today I want to sing the praises of Judgment Day. 

To start, let me admit that it's probably impossible to rehabilitate eschatological anxiety in the modern world, to carve out a place for holy fear in our religious imaginations. But as you've likely guessed, I have some sympathy for this idea. Anxiety shouldn't be demonized. Anxiety is useful, adaptive, and life-preserving, that's why we have it. You can't follow through or sustain your goals without a little bit of worry, concern, and stress. Anxiety is simply the byproduct of caring. Anxiety is the cost of things mattering

All that to say, I just can't shake the belief that my bad behavior, especially any malicious harm of others, doesn't have some eschatological impact. I think there will be consequences. And I think a little anxiety about those consequences can have a healthy, salutary effect upon me. If I'm hurting others I think the fear of God should fall upon me. I need to know that, on the Day of Wrath, I'm going to have to give an account for the harm I've done. 

Basically, I think the love of God implies that God is going to take me seriously. To be clear, I don't think God wants to damn me and send me to hell. I'm not talking about fire and brimstone preachers trying to control my behavior with scare tactics. I'm talking about God taking my life, all my actions, seriously, as a morally weighty, complicated, and significant issue. And if God takes me seriously, and takes all the harm I've done seriously, then there's going to be some exposure here, some hard reckoning. Some judgment. And I think it would be good, for all of us, to live under that expectation, to hear this sermon from time to time: "Hey everyone, this stuff matters. How we treat each other, it matters. It's serious. Very, very serious. There's going to be a Day where we'll have to give an account and face some consequences for how we've treated each other. All harm and evil will be reckoned with." And if that sermon makes you anxious, that's a good thing. That's the point. Not that God doesn't love you, but that life is morally serious, that your actions today matter. That's what I think Judgment Day is trying to communicate: the moral seriousness of life.

Let me come at it this way. When we wring our hands about "if God loves me" our imaginations are pretty selfish and individualistic. It's all about me, me, me. Does God love me? And I get how we're a culture that's anxious, depressed, shame-filled, and guilt-ridden. Given our fragile, wounded hearts we need to hear that God loves us, that Love wins. But if we took a second to ponder how God loves everyone, and not just me, I think we could better appreciate the message of Judgment Day. Of course God loves you, but that also means God loves your neighbor and how you treat him or her. The problem with focusing overmuch on grace, for myself, is that all the relational stuff, where all the moral action happens, falls through the cracks. The love of God reduces to a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart than care for the entire relational fabric of the world. Yes, God loves every person within that fabric, and that's where grace is therapeutically experienced, in your heart. But the judgment of God concerns the torn relational fabric and brings that damage into view. And the two are of a piece. Grace demands judgment. Because God loves both you and I, together, the relational fabric between us has to come under moral scrutiny. And that scrutiny is called Judgment Day. 

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